Space place and environment

Marginality, in turn, requires a further step towards concretion. For marginality, the practical interpretation of scarcity and natural limits, occurs only within concrete processes of space and time. 'Implied in the concepts of "external physical conditions", "laborpower", and "communal conditions"', writes O'Connor, 'are the concepts of space and "social environment".'46 Only through temporal-spatial practices are problems of scarcity and limit to be grasped. The theme of scarcity cannot be divorced from the place of scarcity which is the locus of the social force of circumstance. So, for example, communities may endure in a particular place through extreme scarcity.

To attend to the concept of place is an acknowledgement by historical materialism that the relations of humanity with nature cannot be engaged without attention to the cultural desires of those who occupy - sometimes marginal - places. (Indeed, communities may defend their place from attempts to 'improve' it.) What emerges at this point is a recognition of the need to subjectivise and historicise the interpretation of the conditions of production. David Harvey has written at some length on the theme of space and its relation to place and environment; to his account I now turn.47

There are three points, central to Harvey's account, that I wish to present: (1) That spatio-temporalities are always configured in and through social practices: in a specific and restricted sense, space and time are socially constructed; as such, these practices are open to amendment. (2) A relational account of space and time can be employed to explore the relation between space and place. (3) Considerable practical and theoretical difficulties exist in the construal of a liberatory relation between

47. I should add thatHarvey's account in his Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference is both wide-ranging and diffuse; what follows may make Harvey's account more systematic and coherent than in fact it is.

space and place: the connection is sometimes oppressive, at other times oppositional.

What does it mean to say, first, that space and time are always configured by social practices.? We must note, according to Harvey, that to say that space and time are social constructions is not to say that these are subjective. 'Social constructions of space and time operate with the full force ofobjective facts to which all individuals and institutions necessarily respond. To say that something is socially constructed is not to say it is personally subjective.'48 A sense of the objective, yet amendable, aspect of space-time may be won by attention to the ways in which new practices, together with new accounts of space-time, can be imposed on a society (from within and without). Hence, Harvey argues, following the work of William Cronon, that the clash between the first English settlers and the American Indians can be traced to different accounts of spacetime; furthermore, the imperatives of Fordist-type working conditions means strict adherence to time set by a clock (an imposition that was itself resisted).

At this point Harvey rehearses the well-known argument from his earlier The Condition of Postmodernity49 on the compression of space-time: after the oil crisis of 1973, 'Time-horizons for decision making (now a matter of minutes in international financial markets) shortened and lifestyle fashions changed rapidly. And all of this has been coupled with a radical reorganisation ofspace relations, the further reduction ofspatial barriers, and the emergence of a new geography of capitalist development. These events have generated a powerful sense ofspace-time compression affecting all aspects of cultural and political life.'50 Nor should we say that there are two dimensions of space-time in capitalist society. Harvey rejects a duality posited between the operation of the market economy -and the spatio-temporalities which comprise such a market - and the different, multilayered and variegated spatio-temporalities embedded in the practices ofthe household to which most turn for relationships governed by the imperatives of affectivity rather than the imperatives of'efficiency gains'. In rejecting this duality, he notes the 'crossover' between the market and household: fashions changed by the shortening timescales of capitalist accumulation; previous spatial conditions in collapse, as indicated by the fruit and vegetable display in any supermarket (in Britain, you can

48. Harvey, Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference, pp. 211-12.

49. David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity (Oxford: Blackwell, 1989), esp. part III.

50. Harvey, Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference, p. 245.

buy blueberries cultivated in the USA, potatoes produced in Egypt and corn grown in Thailand).

Second, what are the details of this relational account of space-time.? Harvey's argument moves by way of a loose combination of the views of Leibniz with those of Whitehead. Here Leibniz seems to have the priority. Yet this is a Leibniz whose philosophy is secularised and later 'materialised' by reference by Whitehead. From Leibniz, Harvey suggests that space and time are not to be privileged one over the other; space is to be understood as comprised of distinct spaces rather than a single overarching space with its sub-divisions; space and time inhere in particular practices. Harvey rejects Leibniz's metaphysical judgment that our world is the best of all possible worlds. Although Leibniz holds to this view based on an account of God's providential ordering of the world, Harvey notes its deeply conservative implications. By contrast, the present ordering of the world is not to be traced to God's will, Harvey recommends, but rather to a determinate social ordering.

For my purposes, this is an important point: we have already seen the relation between the metaphysical judgment as to the 'balance of nature' and the matters of scarcity and sustainability. Here Harvey makes a similar point: the dynamics ofspace-time are not given; instead, these inhere in specific practices - political, economic, social, personal. To revise the dynamics of space-time thereby requires the alteration of such practices. The metaphysical presumption in force is thus against harmony, in a double sense: there is no presumption as to harmony either in intrahuman relations or relations between humanity and nature.

What follows from this is less clear. Harvey certainly seeks to respond to the epistemological question: how can resistances to such processes be thought? Before that, Harvey applies his reading of the dialectical interrelating ofspatio-temporalities to the concepts ofplace and environment. He summarises his conclusions thus:

Entities achieve relative stability in their bounding and their internal ordering of processes creating space, for a time. Such permanencies come to occupy a piece of a space in an exclusive way (for a time) and thereby define a place - their place - (for a time). The process of place formation is a process of carving out permanencies from the flow of processes creating spaces. But the 'permanencies' - no matter how solid they seem - are not eternal: they are always subject to time as 'perpetual perishing'. They are contingent on the processes that create, sustain and dissolve them.51

We have here Harvey's attempt to relate together the processes of time and production of space. Such a perspective may be applied in straightforward ways to what Harvey dubs environment or nature. On such a view it is no longer possible to separate out the spatio-temporal processes governing nature from those governing society. Academic disciplines which operate on the basis of some such distinction are thereby to be rejected. Yet, when applied to place, as Harvey notes, the matter is not so simple: for place is more than a temporary permanence in the churning of spaces. Instead, place is often associated with the affections and memory. How is this to be thought.?

So we come, third, to the consideration of the liberatory and oppressive aspects of place. Harvey proposes two ways of considering the construction of place. Of course, place is always constructed through social processes. One sort of analysis might then concentrate on the ecological processes which are included in the spatio-temporal processes ofthe production of space as place. A different approach is to attend to the ways in which the international movement of money over the last twenty-five years has produced space. Harvey notes the threats to place (through de-industrialisation, for example), and that capitals have become more sophisticated in detecting the differences between particular places which are advantageous to accumulation. The competition between places for capital investment and the steady overinvestment inland in the last decade or two are clear evidence of this development.52 But, as Harvey notes, that hardly accounts for the continued attachment to place. Why will people dedicate themselves to defend a particular place. Why do some people not wish to leave an impoverished housing estate even when offered alternative, 'superior' accommodation? Why is a people's sense of identification with landscapes so strong that they persistently fail to see that the landscape is everywhere worked over by human labour.?53

The importance of place as a privileged location where people seek to connect with the environment as the locus of community is noted by Harvey. Useful objections to both these commitments are discussed. As regards identification with a particular landscape, Harvey notes that the knowledge that governs such areas is necessarily small scale and thereby tends not to be concerned with the ways in which such spaces are produced by larger processes (the recoding of landscape by the heritage

53. '[T]here was a perfectly well-balanced eco-system in place before man began trespassing on it', letter in Princeton Town Topics (23 September 1998), p. 25, in connection with a proposed deer cull.

industry, for instance). Nor is Harvey persuaded by the claim implicit in some of these positions of direct, largely unmediated relationships with nature. Instead, he considers that such notions might be constructed in ways which are anti-capitalist in a romantic sense, but hardly oppositional. With regard to place as community, the usual objections concerning tendencies to sectarianism, hierarchicalism and suppression of dissent are noted.54

Yet the constructive position advanced - a response to the question: how is the relation between the construction of space and place to be thought.? - is brief and unpersuasive. Harvey makes the valuable point that 'cultural politics in general (and the search for affective community in particular) and political-economic power intertwine in the social processes of place construction'.55 And, although some examples of the contradictory processes of place construction are given, what is crucially missing from the argument is a presentation of how to detect the difference between positive and negative construals ofplace.

So the question remains: what are the tendencies and dynamics of lib-eratory, rather than merely alternative, places? Harvey's argument is especially valuable in its insistence that the cultural representations of a particular place are as material as the other outcomes ofsocial processes. Thereby rejected is a common perception in Marxism that ideas are to be denigrated as not being the causal motors of history. However, despite this welcome emphasis on the materiality of representation, no account is given of the relation between the construal of place and conceptions of nature. More especially, which representations ofnature might be considered liberatory?

In sum, Harvey is right when he suggests that spatio-temporal processes are social constructions which are material and objective. But the vital issue occluded in this formulation is how does humanity relate to an abundant nature? And the question which must be answered first here is: what is this nature to which humanity both refers and is the measure of? Answering this question would enable Harvey to explore how the construal of nature in a particular place does not necessarily yield a local, 'unmediated' knowledge. I return to this theme in chapter 9 in a discussion ofeucharistic place.

54. Harvey, Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference, pp. 303-4.

Was this article helpful?

0 0
Meditation Mastery Breath Watching

Meditation Mastery Breath Watching

Discover How Breath Watching Meditation Turned My Mind From Cluttered To Laser Focus. You Can Get More Things Done When You’re Focus And Aware Of Your Mind.

Get My Free Ebook


Post a comment